Start-up Winery on Correct Course

Madera's Solitary Cellars adjusts for growth in second year

by Jane Firstenfeld
Solitary Cellars
The three owners behind Solitary Cellars are officers in California state correctional facilities.
Madera, Calif.—When Lt. Gregory Bergerson retires from his long career as a California corrections officer next year, he will not yet be a free man. With partners Rick Quesada and Byron Rogers, who’ll keep their day jobs as lieutenants in state corrections facilities, Bergerson will be running Solitary Cellars, a start-up winery that’s already accrued notable local sales and a thriving wine club.

Prompted by Bergerson’s home winemaking experience, the officers launched Solitary in 2012, with help from a Madera neighbor, 3,200-case Birdstone Winery. Birdstone winemaker Matt Neyman, an enology graduate from California State University, Fresno, oversaw the winemaking, and Solitary shared the Birdstone tasting room, racking up an impressive 150-member club called The Chain Gang.

With its catchy label names and the slogan “Wine without restraints,” Solitary proved so popular with customers that it quickly outgrew the shared situation and will move this fall into a new tasting room space at Appellation California (APCAL), a local wine/beer/food and event venue.

Neyman will remain winemaker, but production of Solitary wines will move to custom-crush facility Estate Crush in Lodi, Bergerson told Wines & Vines. Bottling will continue at Birdstone this year and then move to Estate, which just installed a new bottling line, he said.

Straight to the source
Like many wines from Madera County (currently home to 16 wineries, per Wines Vines Analytics), Solitary is labeled with the California appellation, which gives the partners freedom to source grapes from vineyards around the state.

“We go to the vineyards ourselves,” Bergerson said. “We walk the vineyards, pay cash, pick up the grapes and return the bins,” business practices that make them popular with sources like Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi.

This year, Solitary is sourcing Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Bokisch, well-known as a specialist in Iberian varieties, will provide Tempranillo and the distinctive white Albariño.

The three winery partners already have hosted successful public events that benefit the charity closest to their hearts, Madera Victims Services.

Their first fest raised $2,500. “We give them the cash; they know how to use it best,” Bergerson said, noting that in their corrections work, the partners are personally familiar with the perpetrators of violence. Coca-Cola donated the all-important designated-driver booth.

On the other hand, in the future Solitary is not averse to employing probationers or parolees whose charges were not alcohol-related.  “We can work with the parole officers,” he noted.

With enough funding and time, the partners have ambitions to eventually grow their own grapes. Their status as corrections officers currently prohibits them from obtaining bonded winery status, so they are working as an alternating proprietorship with Estate Crush.

Meanwhile, they concentrate on growing their brand. They upgraded their packaging based on products they encountered at the 2013 Unified Symposium in Sacramento. They ordered heavier bottles, tin capsules from Ramondin and natural corks from M.A. Silva. While they can’t yet afford a full complement of French oak barrels, the partners are not embarrassed to utilize oak alternatives.
Bergerson sketches out the brand’s memorable labels, with help from a local artist, including “Ball & Chain,” a sold-out blend originally destined for his daughter’s wedding at Birdstone this week.

Solitary plans to bottle some 800 cases of the 2013 vintage. Visit the website for details.

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